Caligula: A Biography

Caligula: A Biography

by Aloys Winterling

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The infamous emperor Caligula ruled Rome from A.D. 37 to 41 as a tyrant who ultimately became a monster. An exceptionally smart and cruelly witty man, Caligula made his contemporaries worship him as a god. He drank pearls dissolved in vinegar and ate food covered in gold leaf. He forced men and women of high rank to have sex with him, turned part of his palace into a brothel, and committed incest with his sisters. He wanted to make his horse a consul. Torture and executions were the order of the day. Both modern and ancient interpretations have concluded from this alleged evidence that Caligula was insane. But was he?

This biography tells a different story of the well-known emperor. In a deft account written for a general audience, Aloys Winterling opens a new perspective on the man and his times. Basing Caligula on a thorough new assessment of the ancient sources, he sets the emperor's story into the context of the political system and the changing relations between the senate and the emperor during Caligula's time and finds a new rationality explaining his notorious brutality.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this lively biography of Rome's infamous third emperor, readers will not find the wild-eyed dictator the public has, for nearly two millennia, come to expect. Offering not an apology for the "mad" emperor but a thoughtful argument for his sanity, Winterling, ancient history professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland (Aula Caesaris), debunks Caligula's most grotesque and oft repeated crimes. Accounts of his incestuous relationship with his sisters and his creation of a brothel on palace grounds (with senators' wives as prostitutes) were slander by biased historical sources such as Suetonius. Caligula's supposed plan to appoint his favorite race horse as consul (the highest ranking position below emperor) and his claim to be in direct contact with various gods, says Winterling, were cruel jokes misinterpreted over time. The emperor's crossing of the Bay of Baiae on a bridge of ships was not an expensive folly but an unprecedented display of power to the Germanic tribes he was targeting. Like a police interrogator, Winterling plays his ancient sources off each other, identifying holes in their accounts, "blatant contradictions," and conflicts of interest. In this brisk and well-measured biography, Caligula emerges a troubled and cruel man, but not a crazy one. Photos. (Sept.)

The New Criterion

Makes it clear that the behavior of the third emperor were the acts of a diffident, slightly paranoid youth, who lacked the patience that the most quarrelsome and important of his subjects required.


[Winterling] gives us a biography that brings the man and his times to life.


Accessible and graceful. . . . Highly recommended.


A persuasive new Caligula emerges from this elegant revision: not mad at all, but just as bad and dangerous to know.

Cathnews Perspectives

No Roman emperor cries out more obviously for redemption, but Aloys Winterling’s Caligula, a calm reassessment of his reign, avoids revisionist whitewashing and takes the residue of hatred as inescapable.


Presents Roman emperor Caligula in a new light.

New Yorker

Seeks to rehabilitate one of the most infamous Roman emperors, commonly believed to have been deranged.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR)

Winterling has produced an innovative biography which takes a novel approach to interpreting the historiography of Caligula’s reign.

London Review Of Books

An eloquent and compelling study of Roman imperial history, and especially of the difficult relations between the imperial monarch and the traditional aristocracy.

Ancient History Bulletin - Geoff W. Adams

A worthy study, which covers significant aspects of Caligula’s reign and provides some new interpretations on this fascinating subject.


“Presents Roman emperor Caligula in a new light.

New Yorker

“Seeks to rehabilitate one of the most infamous Roman emperors, commonly believed to have been deranged.


A persuasive new Caligula emerges from this elegant revision: not mad at all, but just as bad and dangerous to know.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520943148
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt


A Biography

By Aloys Winterling, Deborah Lucas Schneider, Glenn W. Most, Paul Psoinos


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94314-8


Childhood and Youth


Gaius Caesar Germanicus was born on 31 August in the year A.D. 12 to Germanicus and the elder Agrippina. At the time no one could have foreseen that at the age of only twenty-four this young man, known by then under his nickname, "Caligula," would become Roman emperor. On 18 March 37, he would become ruler of an empire that spanned virtually the entire known world of antiquity, from Syria to the English Channel, from North Africa to the Danube region, and from Spain to Asia Minor. No one could have anticipated how many intrigues and murders, trials and executions would take place in Rome, the center of that Empire, in the two and a half de cades leading up to his succession. Nor could anyone have possibly imagined in the year 12 how Gaius would come to exercise his rule in the end.

At the time of his birth, his great-grandfather Augustus was still in power. Although aristocrats criticized Augustus in private, they were all agreed on the most important achievement of his long sole rule (31 B.C.–A.D. 14): After almost a hundred years of violent political conflict and civil wars, which had affected the entire Mediterranean region and could be described in retrospect as a process of gathering monopolization of political power, Augustus had brought peace. Admittedly in doing so he had also ended the old collective rule of the aristocracy that had characterized the Roman Republic and functioned with great success for centuries, replacing it with a form of sole rule—something that had clearly become unavoidable. His exceptional position, which he had usurped during the civil war against Marcus Antonius, was based on military might, but he had not given it the form of monarchy, showing a restraint for which many of his senatorial coequals gave him credit. Instead he had chosen the term "principate," which allowed him to appear as merely one of the first among citizens. At the same time he had reanimated the old political institutions and practices of the Republic: The Senate met and debated; the magistrates in Rome and the provincial governors performed their tasks; the people assembled, voted, and decided—and acted on important questions only as Augustus wished. The emperor's unrestricted control over the military was symbolized by his bodyguard, the elite Praetorians, whose presence and its import could not be overlooked. Nevertheless he had caused his unique position to be confirmed in Rome and the provinces in the traditional legal forms, showing that although he had drained the old Republican institutions of real power he still needed them to justify his authority. Thus a curious situation had arisen, one that demanded great communicative skill from all participants: The senators had to act as if they still possessed a degree of power that they no longer had, while the emperor had to exercise his power in such a way as to dissemble his possession of it.

How did this contradictory, historically unique combination of republic and monarchy come about? One social and one political reason can be named. Like all highly developed pre-modern cultures, ancient Rome had a stratified society, with a deep division between the nobility and the non-noble population. The exercise of authority, whether in the military or in the civic sphere, had always been limited to members of the upper class. Even though the common people were included in the political process during the Republic, it was precisely their behavior that reserved authority for the noble families. For although elections were held regularly and were technically open to non-noble candidates, again and again those elected to political office (and thus to positions of military leadership) came almost exclusively from the same noble families. They were evidently the only men whom the common people were prepared to obey. Every emperor faced this situation. He needed the leading members of the nobility to command the Roman legions throughout the Empire and to perform civic functions in Rome itself. This group was identical, however, to the approximately six hundred men who composed the membership of the Senate—the most important Republican political institution—and the core of the Roman aristocracy, with whom an emperor thus had to have some kind of workable entente.

A second reason for the situation was more banal, but just as important. It involved the mortal danger to which all participants were exposed. The civil wars of the late Republic had shown what ruthlessness military leaders were capable of in dealing with their fellow aristocrats. Since the time of Sulla there had been repeated proscriptions in which political and personal opponents had simply been liquidated. Conversely, however, it had become apparent that in Rome bayonets did not make a good throne, so to speak. The fate of the all-powerful dictator Caesar, the adoptive father of Augustus, had shown that the aristocratic Roman resistance to all forms of monarchy could stiffen into assassination, even within the circle of the ruler's most trusted followers. Conspiracy and murder, ever justifiable for removing tyrants, became swords of Damocles hanging over the head of every emperor from then on. As the coming centuries were to show, more than a few would fall victim to them.

Augustus's answer to this situation was the paradoxical establishment of sole rule through restoration of the old Republic. His particular achievement consisted in demonstrating that such a thing was possible. Augustus's precedent, however, proved exceedingly difficult to follow. Attempts to reproduce it became the dominant feature of the period after his death in the year 14, and thus also of the world in which his great-grandson Caligula came of age. Two central problems above all rapidly became apparent: the personal inadequacy of possible successors for the difficult role of emperor, and the complicating politicization of the imperial family (a process that could be observed even during Augustus's lifetime).

Augustus's style of ruling demanded both a high degree of dissimulation regarding his own position and great skill in handling power. For several centuries a social system had been established based on an immediate link between political power and social status. The members of the aristocracy, whose goal in life—as in other pre-modern aristocratic societies—was to acquire honor and fame, depended for that purpose on exercising political functions and holding office as magistrates. Success in these endeavors determined an individual's ranking in the social hierarchy of the aristocracy, and this status was visible in many aspects of everyday life: in the order in which senators voted; in seating at theatrical performances in Rome; in the number of followers who paid morning calls at the home of a successful aristocratic politician and accompanied him to the Forum; in the location and size of his house, and in the luxury displayed there, especially at dinners and banquets.

One condition of Augustus's success was his willingness, in social situations, to dispense with displays of the political power he had acquired. In daily life he behaved like an ordinary senator, maintaining friendships with other aristocrats as if they were equals, refraining from appearing in public with a large retinue, and residing in a house on the Palatine Hill that was reported to be relatively modest by aristocratic standards. Via this renunciation of honors Augustus was evidently following a conscious strategy, to ensure that the aristocracy accepted his position. In so doing he overcame the typical aristocratic mentality, and he was successful primarily because his contemporaries retained their traditional outlook. This was an extraordinary achievement on his part and, as the subsequent history would show, one that few of his successors were willing or able to emulate.

Augustus's willingness to forgo special honors was connected with a style of ruling that dispensed entirely with giving orders to members of the Senate, but nevertheless offered sufficient clues for them to grasp what his wishes were. Because of his superior position of power the senators automatically obeyed his intimations, in a thoroughly opportunistic manner that sometimes even anticipated any actual hint or sign. Yet it was decisive that traditional forms were observed. Thus it was sufficient for the emperor to break off his personal friendship with a recalcitrant senator and deny him admittance to his house. Immediately other senators would see to it that he was charged with a crime and brought to trial; as a result the careers of the emperor's "enemies" soon came to an end, and often their lives as well. The art in Augustus's dealings with the aristocracy consisted in making such serious cases the rare exception, even though a whole series of conspiracies against him were discovered and exposed.

Augustus implemented wise policies on particular issues, such as increasing the security of the Empire and its infrastructure, adding architectural adornments to Rome, or keeping its citizens supplied with grain. But fundamentally his grip on success came not from policy, but from his personal ability to master paradoxical demands in communicating with the aristocracy: ruling without giving orders, wielding power without appearing to do so. At the end of his life, it is reported, he sent for the members of his inner circle, delivered a cynical commentary on the times, and asked for a round of applause, like a star retiring from the stage. His immediate successor would demonstrate that such acting skills were rare among the Roman aristocracy.


Because Augustus had not introduced a monarchy in a constitutional sense, arranging instead for the institutions of the Republic to grant him special powers tailored to his own needs, it was an open question who would legally succeed him. The characteristic motto of hereditary monarchies—"The king is dead; long live the king!"—did not apply to the Roman Empire. In Theodor Mommsen's classic phrase, "by law the Principate died with the princeps." Every time an emperor died, someone had to emerge as the next wielder of supreme power, to be proclaimed emperor by the army, and to be confirmed by the Senate. In the worst-case scenario—as it played out after Nero's death in the year 68 or that of Commodus in 192—that meant the outbreak of a new civil war, until one of the claimants emerged as victor. Normally an emperor would make arrangements for the succession during his lifetime. It was crucial, however, that in principle he had a free hand to choose a successor. To start with, the identity of the next emperor was an open question.

Usually it was not only the family fortune that was passed on from father to son in aristocratic families in ancient Rome; sons also inherited the close relationships within the aristocratic society, alliances known as "friendships," as well as any political prestige that the father had enjoyed with the people of Rome and the soldiers of the Empire. If the emperor had a son or had adopted one, that son was thus automatically destined to be the successor. Women, especially wives or daughters of an emperor, could also play a crucial role in the question of succession if they had a son from a previous marriage or had given birth to a grandson of the emperor. As a result family relationships acquired great political significance, which could destabilize the position of a reigning emperor as well as support it.

Although Augustus had no son of his own, he did have a daughter, Julia, from a former marriage. His second wife, Livia, for her part had brought two sons with her into the marriage: Tiberius, the later emperor, and Drusus (known as Drusus I, or Drusus the Elder). Augustus chose to signal and secure his choice by arranging for the presumptive successor to marry Julia: first his nephew Marcellus and then, after Marcellus's early demise, his chief general and associate, Marcus Agrippa. When Agrippa also died in 12 B.C. Augustus adopted his two grandsons from Julia and Agrippa's marriage, Gaius and Lucius, who thus became candidates for the throne. Both of them also predeceased Augustus, however, so that the choice finally fell on his stepson Tiberius. He, too, had to marry Julia, and of all the candidates was the one who actually lived to become her father's successor.

The politics of the imperial family had, however, produced other aspirants for the throne. Augustus had married off his second stepson, Drusus, to his niece, Antonia II (Antonia Minor, Antonia the Younger). At the time of Drusus's death in 9 B.C. they had two sons—Claudius, the later emperor, and Germanicus—who were thus great-nephews of the emperor. Claudius received little notice initially because of a physical handicap, but for Germanicus a marriage was arranged with Agrippina the Elder, Augustus's granddaughter from the marriage of Julia and Agrippa. Germanicus and Agrippina's children included three sons: Nero (not the later emperor), another Drusus (III), and Caligula. At the time of Augustus's death they were all still children, but unlike Tiberius they acquired the prestige of the imperial family by virtue of being the first emperor's biological great-grandchildren and great-great-nephews. Augustus "solved" this problem by requiring Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, thereby opening the way to the succession for his great-grandchildren. The fate of Tiberius's own son, Drusus II (Drusus the Younger) remained undecided. An attempt was made to resolve it by arranging further marriages between the different branches of the imperial family. Thus Drusus the Younger married Livilla, Augustus's great-niece, while Livilla's daughter in her turn married one of Germanicus's sons, Nero. One last grandson of Augustus, named Agrippa Postumus, from the marriage of Julia and Agrippa, had fallen into disfavor for reasons that remain unclear. He was murdered in the year 14, possibly on Augustus's own initiative or that of Livia or Tiberius.

These complicated family relationships—difficult not only for modern prosopographers, but probably also for contemporaries to keep straight—signal a central problem that resulted directly from Augustus's construction of the Principate. Because he chose to forgo a hereditary monarchy and thus the concomitant legal clarification of the succession, he found it difficult to control the political prestige derived from blood relationships to the emperor. Rivalries could arise within the imperial family, which in turn offered ideal openings for groups of aristocrats to back possible successors. Sometimes these alliances developed into conspiracies. Augustus's own daughter, Julia, started the ball rolling. In the year 2 B.C. she was banished because of her contacts with young aristocrats in Rome, including Iullus Antonius, the son of the triumvir Marcus Antonius, who had been Augustus's last remaining rival in the civil war. Whether adultery was involved, as the official charge claimed, or a political conspiracy, as many suspected, is in the last analysis irrelevant. If the daughter of the emperor, whose three marriages had created presumptive candidates to succeed him, entered into a close relationship with a high-ranking aristocrat, that in itself amounted to an important political development that threatened the emperor, regardless of what her own motives may have been.

Similar events would occur repeatedly over the de cades that followed. All these conspiracies, real or imagined, and the punitive reactions to them meant that when the emperor Nero died in the year 68, not a single descendant of Augustus remained alive. This complete disappearance of the imperial family can hardly be judged in moral terms. It resulted from the political relevance of those familial relationships and the potential mortal danger menacing all the emperor's kin.


Caligula spent his first seven years in Germania, Rome, Greece, and the Orient. As many sources attest, his father, Germanicus, who had risen to the status of prince through Augustus's adoption arrangements, enjoyed great popularity in all parts of society on account of his good looks and genial personality; he was made commander of the Roman legions on the Rhine in the year 13. His task there was to lead a campaign against the Germanic tribes east of the river, who had inflicted a major defeat on the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest a few years earlier. Germanicus's wife, Agrippina, followed him, and soon afterwards their small son was sent north to join them, too. He thus spent his early years in a military camp. Supposedly it was Agrippina, known to take an active interest in military affairs, who hit on the idea of dressing little Gaius in a kind of miniature legionary's uniform, as a form of flattery to the soldiers and designed to win their affection. He acquired his nickname, "Caligula," from the little soldier's boots he wore, and it stuck to him for his entire life.


Excerpted from Caligula by Aloys Winterling, Deborah Lucas Schneider, Glenn W. Most, Paul Psoinos. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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